America loves democracy, where the mandates of government are determined by the consent of the governed. The public's temperature is gauged regularly -- even daily -- by a media obsessed with polling data on absolutely everything.
But are these media surveys intended to document public opinion -- or affect it?
Take the war. At the outset of verbal hostilities, the media's pollsters asked the generic question: Do you favor war in Iraq? Maybe they felt the question too broad or the number in agreement too high. Whatever the reason, the pollsters felt the need to get more specific. Do you favor war ... if the United States goes around the United Nations? Do you favor war ... even if ground troops are used? As the numbers curved lower, pollsters even asked if the public would still favor war if American ground troops suffered large casualties.
Polls are a good way to measure how the country is absorbing politics; how the country is responding to the statements of our political leaders; how the public reacts to saber-rattling by our enemies; and what we think of our "allies" at the United Nations. But the media are not just taking the country's temperature. They attempt to manipulate public opinion by touting results gleaned from sometimes loaded questions. What's even more fascinating is how the media selectively report their own poll results.
In the pre-war buildup, ABC News found it necessary to report, as a formal news story, the polls showing support slipping for the White House. I'll buy that. But if that's true, how does ABC explain its decision not to tell viewers -- as a formal news story -- when their own poll numbers revealed growing support for the White House case?
On Jan. 21, Peter Jennings reported: "An ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that public support for attacking Iraq has declined somewhat: 57 percent of Americans now support U.S. military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein. It was 62 percent in mid-December, and as high as 78 percent a few months after the 9-11 attacks."
The ABC news judgment: The administration's lost support is news.
A week later, hours before the State of the Union address, Jennings mentioned -- mentioned -- the number had risen four points back to 61 percent figure on his newscast. But he did not describe it as an increase. And for good measure, he buried it under a stack of more liberal-pleasing numbers: "An ABC News poll for this occasion finds that 64 percent of Americans believe the U.N. weapons inspectors should be given a few more months to do their jobs; 61 percent support attacking Iraq eventually. But only 44 percent of American support a war if the United Nations does not approve."